ONE OF the biggest challenges Ramon Roges has faced in his 10 years as dentist to USC athletes has been getting football players to hang on to their custom-fit mouth guards. A couple of years ago he even put personalized designs on the devices to cultivate a stronger sense of ownership among his careless patients. For quarterback Mark Sanchez, for instance, Roges and an assistant created a red, white and green mouth guard that replicated the Mexican flag, right down to the coat of arms: an eagle clutching a rattlesnake. Sanchez, whose great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 20th century, loved the gesture and wore the mouth guard in his second collegiate start, at Notre Dame in October 2007. "Half the people who come to our home games are Mexican," Sanchez says. "I thought it would be a big deal for them, a way of showing my appreciation for their support."
It was a big deal, all right, but more so to commenters in the blogosphere, who interpreted Sanchez's cultural shout-out as an endorsement of illegal immigration. After the quarterback triumphantly strode off the field in South Bend to chants of "San-CHEZ! San-CHEZ!" from Trojans fans, the USC football office was blitzed with angry mail, phone calls and e-mails. Sanchez's four touchdown passes in the Trojans' 38--0 victory had done nothing to soften the criticism. "Everybody tells you you're under the microscope [as USC quarterback]," says Sanchez, who was stunned by the reaction, "but it was never more apparent than then."
Since Mouthgate, Sanchez has worn the guard now and then but hasn't given his critics much to chew on. The 21-year-old redshirt junior, who backed up John David Booty for two seasons before winning the starting job last spring, has established himself as a Heisman Trophy candidate. "He's a resourceful quarterback, able to take off and move [in the pocket] and make some plays with his legs," says USC coach Pete Carroll. "Our players really respond to him." So does the Trojans marching band, which, at Sanchez's suggestion, learned to play the song El Matador, a mid-'90s indie hit by the band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
The 6'3", 225-pound Sanchez grew up in Orange County idolizing Carson Palmer, a star at Santa Margarita High who won the Heisman at USC before becoming an NFL quarterback. Now Sanchez has a chance to succeed his childhood hero and become the marquee QB in Los Angeles. Tom Flores, the former Oakland Raiders quarterback and coach and now the team's radio analyst, says that if Sanchez leads the 2--1 Trojans to a national title, "it could be the final breakthrough for Hispanics in this sport."
Sanchez wasn't the first football player—or even the first quarterback—in his family. His father, Nick, a captain in the Orange County Fire Authority, was a standout signal-caller at L.A.'s Manual Arts High and played two years at East Los Angeles College. He drilled the rudiments of football and basketball into his three sons and hounded them into doing their schoolwork. (The boys had to spell words or recite the multiplication tables as they shot free throws, and they had to earn at least a B+ in each subject to participate in organized sports.) The oldest, Nick Jr., lettered three times as quarterback at Yale. The middle boy, Brandon, was an offensive lineman at DePauw. Mark, the youngest by eight years, started out as a linebacker and fullback; by age 10 he was 5'9". At 12 he switched to quarterback, and as a senior at Mission Viejo High, in 2004, he led the Diablos to a state championship.
Sanchez was redshirted his first year at USC, and in 2006 he began battling Booty for playing time. But his efforts were undone by off-field troubles. In April '06 he was arrested after being accused of sexually assaulting a female USC student. The university placed him on interim suspension until, two months later, L.A. prosecutors decided not to file charges, citing insufficient evidence. "It was unfortunate, but it was a learning experience," says Sanchez. "I needed to get past it and get back to what I know: being a good student, being a good person, being a good football player."
Last summer he attended team workouts and summer-school classes (he's a communication major and a PAC-10 All-Academic honorable mention) and then worked a five-hour shift as a sous chef at a Long Beach restaurant, where he honed his modest Spanish-speaking skills with Latino busboys. "He's still not ready for Telemundo," cracks Brandon.
Perhaps not, but Sanchez will rely on the Spanish-language media to connect with his many Latino fans this season. How widespread is his following? Last summer his father was making the 160-mile drive to Mission Viejo from his modest second home in Ensenada, Mexico, when he stopped at a taco stand about 100 miles from the U.S. border. As he placed his order, he saw a familiar face behind the counter. "[The owner] had a picture of Mark on the wall," Nick Sr. recalls. "He didn't even speak English or know anything about football." But he knew Mark—which, if anything, speaks to the power of word of mouth.